Alabama’s Chase for 14 began in earnest on Saturday, and it got off to a rousing start, with the Tide throttling a traditional power and Top 20 team in Tuscaloosa. My predicted final score of 31-16 turned out to be way off, but my overall impressions of the game proved correct. Penn State was able to create several explosive plays by picking on the inexperienced defense, but barely managed a sniff of the endzone. Worse, instead of settling for field goals, they suffered 3 costly turnovers inside the 20 yard line. And that was ultimately their undoing. Failing to put the fear of a comeback in Alabama, the Tide was free to dial up whatever they wanted on offense without reservation for most of the game and looked tremendous in doing so. At times, it seemed the only people capable of stopping the Bama offense were itself and the refs.
Speaking of which, is the Big 10 hiring one-eyed refs again? I’m not usually one to complain about officiating, but this was some of the worst I’ve seen in quite some time. In particular, the ball spotting was infuriating. Penn State was consistently given an extra half-yard on every spot, while Bama’s spots were routinely marked a half yard short of where anyone with 20/20 vision could tell they were supposed to be. Sometimes it was even WORSE, such as with Greg McElroy’s 3rd down scramble late in the game that would have allowed Bama to keep running the clock. If he didn’t get the first, he was right at the line to make. However, the Big 10 officials spotted him a solid yard and a half short. And this wasn’t even their most egregious offense of the night. That brings me to the first of several points I’d like to highlight.
The Triple Fumble Fiasco. This was one of the most bizarre plays in the long history of Bryant-Denny Stadium. On 2nd and 6 from the Bama 16, Penn State’s Chaz Powell caught a short pass, then took a stiff hit from Mark Barron, coughing up the football. Robert Lester recovered at the 9 yard line, then took off down the sidelines with a convoy of blockers. Despite clearly being warned by Dre Kirkpatrick that a Penn State receiver was on his trail, Lester failed to secure the ball and got Teague-d at the State 16-yard line. Kirkpatrick attempted to scoop up the ball and finish the score, but was tackled short. When his back hit the ground, the ball squirted free and was recovered at the 2 by State’s Brett Brackett. This is where it got weird.
The lead official did NOT make a call on the field over the PA. He immediately sent it to replay review. The only indication of the call on the field we got was a hand signal that appeared to say, “1st down Alabama.” So it went to review. I’m not going to spend time arguing over what the replay actually showed. To me, it appeared Kirkpatrick had possession and the ball came free after he was down. At the same time, I can see the argument that he might not have ever had possession. So it seemed like a clear case of the replay not providing conclusive evidence to overturn the ruling on the field. Which was? Alabama’s ball?
When the replay ruling came down, it was explained as such: “The ruling on the field stands. 1st down Penn State.” The official then gestured first down….Alabama. What the heck? No official ruling was ever made on the field! The closest we got to a ruling was a signal of Bama’s ball. And even after the ruling, the ref’s words don’t match his signals. Shady, or just incompetent? You be the judge. Regardless, it was a major field position flip for the Tide defense. Still, you have to wonder how ugly the game would have gotten if Bama had been awarded the ball and been able to punch it in from the 2 yard line.
The Secondary play was…Encouraging, actually. This was the inexperienced unit’s first test, and they struggled in a lot of the ways you would expect, giving up several big plays. And, let’s be honest, if they go to Fayetteville and play like they did on Saturday, Arkansas will win, big. They still have a long way to go. But I’m encouraged because they didn’t make the BIG mistakes. There were no horrendously blown assignments. There was never an instance of a Penn State receiver getting behind the defense. Whenever they made catches, there was always a Bama defender in at least reasonably good position to make a play on them. It wasn’t a matter of them not knowing where to be, it was an issue of them being a step slow because, well, they’re inexperienced. You can cure inexperience. You can’t cure stupid. Right now, it seems Bama’s problem is the former. You can work with that. You also have to keep in mind that the defense was playing without it’s two best pass rushers for the majority of the game. Courtney Upshaw being extremely limited by an ankle injury (only a handful of snaps) was a big loss that exacerbated the problems caused by Dareus’ absence. When both of those guys are on the field together, it will make the secondary’s life a lot easier.
This talk about the secondary makes me want to point out one guy in particular…
Robert Lester: Hero and Goat. I can’t figure this guy out. There are times you understand why he’s rarely played before this year, and then there are times you think he can be All-SEC. His main problem is tackling. Dude was tackling so bad last night it was like he was playing for Georgia. He gave up a handful of big gains that should have been nothing if he wrapped up. But then he always comes back later and shows the potential to be a Barron-esque ballhawk. Of course, he had the redzone fumble recovery, but then he also had a redzone interception and another potential pick glanced off his hands at the goalline. He is ALWAYS where the ball is. He just runs into trouble when the ball doesn’t end up in his hands.
In his defense, I’ll say tackling was a tad sub-par by Bama standards all night. Even Dont’a Hightower had a play or two where he didn’t wrap up properly and let a ball carrier pick up an extra couple of yards. You didn’t see that out of the Bama defense too much last year. Hopefully, it’ll improve.
On the Injury Front: As mentioned, Upshaw was mostly on the sidelines. In his place, redshirt freshman Ed Stinson started at Jack and played very well, leading the team with 9 tackles. Upshaw should be back next week. Freshman corner DeMarcus Milliner started at corner over DeQuan Menzie and had a solid game after a shaky start when he was picked on early by Penn State. However, he left the game in the 3rd quarter with a pulled hamstring. Starting left tackle James Carpenter also left the game in the 4th after suffering a sprained ankle. Finally, linebacker Chris Jordan did not play the second half with some sort of shoulder injury. He’s scheduled to have an MRI today, so we’ll see how that goes. Everyone except Jordan is expected to be good to go for next week. I feel good about our depth at inside linebacker with the emergence of CJ Mosely, though.
Early indications after the game are that Mark Ingram WILL play next week against Duke. That’s somewhat surprising, and I’ll be keeping an eye on that situation throughout the week.
Checking Up On My PLAYERS TO WATCH
For Alabama: Julio Jones – Julio finished with 4 catches for 49 yards. He was targeted twice on Bama’s first drive, but slipped on the slick grass on a comeback route and couldn’t bring down an errant McElroy pass. Of course, he had his obligatory one drop on an easy quick hitter when he looked up field too soon, but beyond that, he made every catch he should have made. His impact on the game was lessened by State’s complete inability to stop a certain someone I’ll mention in a second.
For Penn State: Even Royster – Another lackluster game for the man who would be the Nittany Lions’ all-time leading rusher. He carried 9 times for just 32 yards, failing to gain any traction against Bama’s defensive front. And, as expected, that failure took away most of State’s play-action threat and made life much more difficult for Robert Bolden. Royster wasn’t alone, though. No other State back fared much better.
The Player of the Game
Trent Richardson – Easy choice here. He rushed 22 times for 144 yards and 1 TD, and added 4 catches for 46 yards. It turned out that Richardson didn’t need any help loosening up the State defense. He came out strong, running over and around (but mostly over) their defensive front on his way to 92 first quarter rushing yards. I always defend Mark Ingram to those who are so quick to anoint Richardson as “already better,” but this game made the argument much tougher. The term “beast” gets thrown around way too much, but I don’t know how else you describe his performance last night.
DID THEY TAKE MY ADVICE?
Just a quick check up to see how my Unsolicited Advice factored into the game:
The Defense must get in Robert Bolden’s head: Yes and no here. In most situations, Bama played a little more vanilla than I would have expected, perhaps not wanting to take to many chances with two of their best pass rushers on the sidelines. Penn State also did a nice job of letting the offensive scheme do most of the work for Bolden. However, when State got into scoring range, Kirby Smart ratcheted up the intensity, and Bolden made bad decisions each and every time.
The Secondary must play sound assignment football: YES. As I said earlier, it wasn’t an assignment issue that gave up the big plays, it was not trusting themselves enough to make the plays. That will come in time. Also give credit to Penn State’s veteran receivers for getting into open spaces in the zone, as I thought they might.
Bama needs to come out throwing: Another yes and no here. After the game, it was stated that the plan was to come out throwing, but a terrible block in the back foul on the opening kickoff backed Bama up against their goal line, and that changed things. And as stated above about Trent, they really didn’t NEED to, after all. However, when they got in better field position to open drives later in the game, you saw that the coaching staff trusted McElroy to sling it around and make plays in the passing game. In particular, Bama’s second drive of the game, played exclusively with 5 players spread out wide, was a thing of beauty. State’s DBs were no match for the Tide’s skill players, and GMac shredded them en route to the first score of the game, a 36 yard TD catch by redshirt freshman Kevin Norwood (reportedly has the best hands on the team), the first of his career.
Bama must protect the right side of the offensive line: No. Interestingly, Bama seemed to be doing the exact opposite for most of the night, leaving DJ Fluker to handle things himself. I think he did well. He had a really nice blitz pickup in an empty backfield that probably saved McElroy’s life. It may have been a bit of a hold, but better to possibly take a holding call than get your quarterback lit up. That guy was coming in HOT. At times, it seemed like Jim McElwain was saying, “Okay, if you’re going to load up to attack the right side, we’re going to put the tight end and the h-back on the left side and just out-man you on runs over there.” That’s why he gets paid the big bucks, folks.
The Kickers must NOT screw things up: They did a nice job. All of Cade Foster’s kickoffs got good distance and hang time. Cody Mandell had solid punts, though it definitely wasn’t as strong as his showing against San Jose State. He takes a long time to get the ball off, too. Jeremy Shelley hit one of those crucial “keep the pressure on them” kicks in the 1st half. However, Foster missed a kick that would have made it 20-0 and really put Penn State behind the 8-ball heading into the half.
You can’t turn your nose up at a 3 touchdown win over a Top 20 team. That said, this was one of those games coaches love. You win comfortably but you have enough problems that you can still chew everyone out on Monday. And really, what did Bama accomplish besides doing what everyone has been saying they would do all year? Time to look ahead to the road trip to Duke, the impending return of Dareus and Ingram, and the final tune-up before the real test of this team begins.
Oh, to be a Duke offensive lineman this week...